x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Al Ain and UAE star Omar Abdulrahman has the hair, flair and his feet firmly on the ground

Omar Abdulrahman speaks to John McAuley about the London Olympics, Gulf Cup success and what the future may hold.

The slight frame of Emirati footballer Omar Abdulrahman on a sofa contrasts with his burgeoning football career.
The slight frame of Emirati footballer Omar Abdulrahman on a sofa contrasts with his burgeoning football career.
Omar Abdulrahman sits among friends around a dinner that concludes an evening in which he has been very much in demand. He picks at pieces of chicken and vegetables, occasionally sipping on water, content to let others hold court.
Outwardly timid, he sparks whenever football is mentioned, yet appears infinitely respectful, always allowing the men in kanduras to lead the conversation. He is only five minutes from his family home, in Al Ain, but looks at peace here, the centre of attention but far from self-centred.
He has just finished a lengthy interview for the Asian Football Confederation's official magazine, his time further seized by an eager photographer keen to capture what makes this childlike footballer with the moptop mane the UAE's brightest young star.
Abdulrahman should be used to the clamour by now, almost grown weary of it, but if he has he does not show it.
Each instruction is dutifully followed, his absolute attention provided until the earnest photographer signals the session is complete.
The scene jars with the image of Abdulrahman at work with club or country, the timepiece to the tempo around him, a free spirit floating between spaces and between tackles, hard to harness but a delight to watch.
If this young Emirati really does have the footballing world at his feet, and the expectations of a nation on his shoulders, then he is playing it cooler than a desert night. Some of those fabled on-pitch traits carry over, after all.
"My life have definitely changed, but it makes me really happy that people look up to me," he says as he settles into a giant, gold-coloured sofa that threatens to swallow his narrow frame. He is convinced the riches ahead, mined from a magical left foot and an astute brain, will not consume him, either.
"Not at all," he says. "This is the price to pay for being famous. I believe if you want something badly you have to make certain sacrifices. I chose to be a footballer. This is what makes me happy.
"OK, sometimes I wish to just be a normal person so I can live my life the way everyone else can, go out wherever I want, because by nature I don't like the publicity. I've always preferred my privacy with friends.
"But it's nice to be considered famous. I look at it as a challenge because I want more and more from my career. It pushes me to develop, to work harder and to be an idol for those who support me. The pressure is not going to stop my ambitions."
Those aspirations have continued to climb since last summer's London Olympics. Abdulrahman was the standout during the UAE's first foray into the Games, refusing to be mired amid the thickly talented midfields of Great Britain, Uruguay and Senegal.
Mahdi Ali's men may have played only three group matches in London, but Abdulrahman has the shirt of Ryan Giggs, the GB captain - "a true football legend" - and a subsequent two-week trial at Manchester City to confirm a personal triumph. A key role in January's Gulf Cup victory - Abdulrahman scored a scrapbook goal in the final and was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player - further enhanced his reputation.
His Bahrain performance persuaded Portugal's Benfica to attempt to recruit the midfielder on a year-long loan, while Al Ain are thought to be currently hosting delegates from a principal European team intrigued by the 21-year-old Emirati. There is talk of a permanent transfer, Abdulrahman set to blaze a trail for UAE football, which has never had a player appear in the first XI for a European side.
"This is a great motivation and challenge," he says. "I see it as these teams are not only coming for me, as I represent not just myself but the whole country. I'll try my hardest to impress them, so they'll say they've seen a strong UAE player. It's an honour for me."
While his technique is undoubted, some have questioned his ability to thrive in the more physical leagues across Europe. He already has lost 18 months of his career to two serious knee injuries, although he has returned from the most recent with his game in rude health.
Consensus suggests Spain would present a suitable setting. Valencia, the six-time Primera Liga champions and twice Uefa Champions League runners-up, reportedly hold significant interest in the player, but as of yet nothing has been confirmed. For Abdulrahman, the destination does not matter; he has the confidence to flourish anywhere.
"I see everywhere as a challenge, so if teams are coming from the English Premier League, Italy's Serie A or the Spanish La Liga, I'd wish to play in any of them," he says. "There are lots of players who people say can't cope in certain leagues but end up doing well.
"But of all, the competition in Spain would probably be best. I believe I can play there."
Faith in flair is one thing, but should Abdulrahman leap a few steps on life's ladder then the sacrifices swell, too. The playmaker comes from a close family: his Yemeni-born parents, two sisters and three brothers, two of whom - Khalid and Mohammed - form a constant support within the Al Ain dressing room. His father and older sibling, Ahmed, are sounding boards, always dissecting performances, offering advice and encouragement.
A shift to a "big league" potentially disrupts the harmony. Abdulrahman, though, insists it can also act as inspiration.
"Maybe at the beginning it'd be difficult being away from my family," he says. "But having success makes my parents happy before it makes me happy, and their happiness is the most important thing.
"Also, I'm entering a test and can therefore no longer think that way. Becoming a professional player is something I really want to do, so I'll be up to the task.
"Anyway, I was in France for two months when I had surgery on my knee, and I was fine with that. I even could've stayed longer if needed. Life there was simple." Continuing the French theme, Abdulrahman found comfort in the experiences of Hamdan Al Kamali, his national teammate, who last year spent half a season on loan at Lyon, the Ligue 1 side.
The Al Wahda defender speaks enthusiastically, privately at least, of his time there, and has imbued Abdulrahman with an additional determination.
"Hamdan told me everything was good, that adapting was not that difficult," he says. "I know I could settle there, or anywhere, because I've an objective to focus on.
"You forget everything going on around you, simply concentrate on the positives of playing football and representing the UAE, not the negatives of what you've left behind."
That is not to say he desperately craves a move. At Al Ain, Abdulrahman is a popular colleague and companion, an integral component in winning successive Pro League titles and continuing the quest for Asian Champions League glory.
Cosmin Olaroiu, the Al Ain coach, recently remarked that, while he would rue losing the playmaker, Abdulrahman deserves to spread his wings.
The Romanian believes the Garden City's most cherished son could blossom in any team in the world. Such a claim elicits from Abdulrahman an awkward look, before he confides an improvement in "everything" is required if he is to excel in Europe.
"I'll try to develop all the facets, both physically and mentally," he says. "I'm going there to learn, so I've got to do my best.
"Maybe I shouldn't go to a very big team at first. It's not that I don't think I can - I'm ready for that - but I want to take it step by step. Although I wish to play for years and years with Al Ain, my dream is to become a professional player.
"But I'm still young, I'm not in any rush. I'm comfortable here. So it doesn't matter if I'm still with Al Ain at age 21, 22 or 23, it's only if I get the right offer that I'll leave. It needs to be the right opportunity."
His recent escalation has prevented the chance to break from football, to forget his juggernaut trajectory and remember who he really is: an eminently likeable young man, modest and mannerly, as comfortable at a casual dinner among friends as he is on the pitch. However, he would not have it any other way.
"This is my life, I like it that I can't relax much," Abdulrahman says. "I might say I want to go somewhere to unwind, but I just end up watching football matches at home.
"Once the season is over, and if we qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League, I'm planning to go away and not even look at a football. But I'll probably say that and end up playing. As I told you, football's my life."
jmcauley@thenational.ae
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